“Someone constantly points out to us,– lyrics of the classic Polish song by Wojciech Młynarski
In the cold or heat, in winter, in summer,
So many unnoticed opportunities,
And someone is right, but after all,
We’re still in the game,
We’re not dying yet,
Our beautiful days, dreams, and plans
Will still come true.”
The slogan “it’s never too late” provides hope that regardless of our age and how our life has unfolded so far, we can still reach for the good things. It eases the nostalgia that the best experiences are behind us and nothing will ever compare, it lightens the weight of past failures and the sting of experienced shortcomings, and even offers some forgiveness for mistakes and neglect. There may have been ups and downs, but something still depends on us; we can still create, discover, and mend. Fortunately, we live in times when fifty is the new forty, which is the new thirty, and that, in turn, is the new twenty, making it easier to believe that we can always reinvent ourselves. Such thinking is valuable, as long as it motivates us to take action here and now. However, if it only reassures us that we have time, it can work against us. Out time isn’t infinite, and just because it’s not too late now doesn’t mean it never will be. So, how can we make life changes without succumbing to the doubt that the time for them has passed? And how can we avoid postponing important matters, so we don’t find out we waited too long?
Inspiring examples of late success
People time and time again push through barriers and prove that one can achieve plenty at any age. The renowned culinary author Julia Child learned to cook when she was nearly in her forties and later became the world’s first celebrity chef. Ray Kroc took over the McDonald’s restaurant after turning fifty and expanded it into the internationally recognized franchise we know today. Virginia Szmyt, in her sixties, took to the DJ booth as DJ Wika and became a star of the renowned clubs in Warsaw. Anna Moses started painting in her seventies, and one of her paintings sold for 1.2 million dollars a few years later. Actress Helena Norowicz became a model in her eighties and attained more popularity through photoshoots and runway appearances than from her earlier roles. Natural history filmmaker David Attenborough started an Instagram account in his nineties and amassed over 5.6 million followers. Harry Bernstein gained fame with a book he published when he was almost a hundred, and then went on to write three more. These examples encourage us to think boldly about the future because if they could do it, maybe we can too.
So why the pressure to achieve everything at a young age?
A good, long life that we can shape according to what we deem best for ourselves is a novelty for humanity. In the not-so-distant past, most people followed the typical paths set by societal expectations. This is reflected in Robert Havighurst’s classic concept from the 1970s, which suggests that individuals pursue personal growth by fulfilling specific tasks assigned to each stage of life. In early adulthood, these tasks include choosing a spouse, starting a family, and beginning to work. In middle age, they involve supporting growing children and maintaining a career, and in late maturity, adapting to retirement and reduced income while maintaining social relationships with people of the same age. Achieving these goals at the right time is a source of satisfaction and earns the approval of society. Failure at one stage brings unhappiness and leads to serious difficulties in all subsequent stages. In such a model, youth is indeed crucial because the rest of life is merely its consequence, and a new opening is not a permissible option.
Life scenarios are far more complex
Conforming to norms has never been a source of universal happiness. However, people did what was expected of them, deferring considerations for their well-being because possibilities of living differently were limited – both by the number of options at hand and the fear of harsh judgment. Phrases like “A grown man cannot act this foolish.” “Three years into marriage and no kids, you seem to be idle at night.” “Are you really going to leave such a good job?” “You won’t destroy the family, will you?” “Do what you want within your four walls, but you don’t have to flaunt it.” “Some swindler will surely take advantage when an older lady starts dating.” effectively discouraged any deviations. But even though we still hear them uttered by others or by our inner voice, the pressure abates. Those who cannot meet societal demands or feel resistance to conform don’t want to be frustrated and written off. We assert our right to happiness, and the world is increasingly accepting and supporting this.
We blossom at different stages of life
Currently, we recognize that our paths are diverse and highly individual, and we are beginning to see value in this. One can imagine people as flowers in a garden. Some bloom while there is still snow, while others come to life in late autumn. We don’t think that some flowers are better or worse for it. Similarly, our time of blooming may come earlier or later, happen once or repeat multiple times, and be more or less abundant. Allowing oneself to go at their own pace liberates and calms, whereas the pressure to accomplish specific tasks by a certain date works against us. If someone, around their twenties, has clarity about what they desire in life, starts a profitable business, or finds the perfect partner, that’s great. But if to build the life we truly want, we first need to gain self-awareness, blaze trails, and learn from our own mistakes, that’s an equally valid path. There is no reason to feel that we are falling behind and that subsequent doors are slamming shut in front of us irreversibly.
Real and unreal barriers
People can claim they are either too old or not too old while being at very different ages. ‘I feel like I’m too old for love,’ writes a 27-year-old on an online forum. ‘I really understand you; I’m becoming more and more conscious of my age,’ responds a 26-year-old. Meanwhile, in another thread, someone responds to a post that says, ‘I’m soon going to be a grandmother, and I’ve fallen in love like a teenager,’ with, ‘I’m a grandfather, and love, even for a grandfather, is a beautiful thing.’ So, is it all in our heads then? Obviously not everything, but usually more than we’re willing to admit. Over time, biological changes occur, but we do have control over the pace of aging. Social pressure exists, but how much we succumb to it is up to us. And we can work on our own beliefs. It’s worth observing what is really true for us to avoid unnecessarily imposing excessive limitations on ourselves. Let’s also be cautious about using age as an excuse not to make an effort to change. In the case of love, saying ‘it’s not for me’ can simply be easier than going on dates, experiencing stress, and exposing ourselves to disappointments.
Health, energy, joy, creativity, entrepreneurship, productivity, and ease of acquiring knowledge are typically regarded as attributes of youth. The stereotype of an older person assumes that with age, all of these weaken. If we believe in it, we begin to manifest it in our lives. We have lower expectations and set smaller goals for ourselves. For instance, we accept that something must start to ache after forty, even though we could counter it by eating better, sleeping more, and exercising. By giving up on activity and avoiding challenges, we observe how the quality of our lives genuinely declines over time. Self-fulfilling prophecies work in line with Henry Ford’s idea: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” Meanwhile, every age has its pros and cons, and human potential doesn’t so much decrease with age as it transforms. Creativity in youth is rather based on curiosity and unconventional thinking, while in older age, it leans towards analysis, interpretation, and the synthesis of experiences, but in both cases, it leads to creative breakthroughs.
A plastic brain throughout life
Scientific research on neuroplasticity reveals the remarkable ability of the brain to adapt and change. It used to be believed that as we age, our brain becomes less flexible. New discoveries show that we can maintain brain plasticity, however, our neurons require stimulation. Not excessive, as when we live under chronic stress, because by forcing nerve cells to work continuously without rest, we eventually overload them risking neurodegeneration. But also not too little, as when we immerse ourselves in stagnation. Much is said about the harmful effects of stress, but its absence doesn’t favour us either. An experiment in which inactive retirees were engaged in a program to assist children from impoverished neighbourhoods showed that such involvement not only halted but even reversed unfavourable changes in areas of their brains susceptible to dementia.
The best age for success
The early achievements of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs capture the imagination. However, the average age of founders of the most successful startups is 45 years old. So, if someone were hesitating between investing in two innovative companies and only knew the ages of their initiators, they would be wiser to bet on an older individual, even though it may seem counterintuitive. Older individuals are also valuable employees – possessing knowledge and experience, capable of taking on roles as experts, coaches, and mentors. They have fewer work absences, stay longer in one company, and have a strong work ethic. It’s worth adding that with age, we tend to experience greater life and job satisfaction, and our social relationships become more positive, correlating with an increase in the “love hormone” oxytocin. What’s best in life is not exclusively and permanently associated with youth.
But is it really never too late?
Success can be achieved at different ages, and change is a feature of life, so as long as it continues, it is possible. However, to say that every person at every moment of their life can reach for anything they desire is not true. Alongside inspiring examples, we all know individuals who go through life, never realizing their dreams or potential until it really is too late. Some opportunities pass irrevocably. Some matters get so neglected that nothing can be done to reverse their course. “Just as autumn can be the most beautiful season of the year, so can old age be the best period of life, where one attains life wisdom and tastes the true essence of life, and what one has experienced throughout life gives a sense of meaningful work. However, there are autumns that are barren and unfruitful, and old age can alike be arid, painful, and even tragic perhaps,” writes psychiatrist Antoni Kępiński.
Every day is a new beginning
The possibility of change comes with each morning. A new day is somewhat like a blank page that we can write on, but that impression quickly fades. We enter every tomorrow as the people we are today – with a baggage of commitments, experiences, and beliefs. We genuinely want to act differently – think about our professional future, spend quality time with a loved one, learn a few Spanish words, or go to bed earlier. However, we fall into the ruts of familiar habits, extinguish fires, catch up on backlogs, or time slips through our fingers as we scroll through our phone screens because we feel we deserve some relaxation. Until evening comes, and we think that tomorrow is another day, after all. Only the baggage becomes slightly heavier, and the change slightly more challenging. But the belief that we still have time to take care of important things will only favour us if we decide not to waste a single moment.
You can procrastinate for too long
Truly important matters in life most often are not urgent. They don’t have an unmovable deadline, and nothing will happen if we don’t attend to them immediately. The danger associated with adhering to the principle of “it’s never too late” in this situation is that it can absolve us of postponing our deepest desires to an indefinite future. We console ourselves that we’re not giving up on them, but the feeling of urgency is not there either. When we read somewhere that Fauja Singh, who completed a marathon at the age of 100, started running when he was 89, and we quickly calculate in our heads how long it would take us to start, we might feel even more relaxed about it. And so, beautiful plans are always ahead of us, but never here. However, the fact that we can do something later in life doesn’t mean we should. Firstly, we don’t know how much time we have ahead of us. Secondly, we also don’t know how long the road to success will take.
Change requires effort and time
We like to imagine that one day, when we finally get to what’s important, the result will appear as if by the wave of a magic wand. But what we see in the lives of others as a sudden and favourable turn of events is often the result of a long process we weren’t witnesses to, as well as tremendous determination and resilience in the face of difficulties. Stephen King’s first book, “Carrie,” was rejected by 30 publishers. Walt Disney was fired for lacking creativity, and when he decided to open Disneyland, 300 sponsors turned him down. When seriously considering the pursuit of our desires, we must include mistakes and dead ends, failures, and subsequent attempts in our plans. Together with the discomfort that will inevitably accompany us. You can change careers, but no one becomes an expert or virtuoso overnight. You can find a partner, but a good relationship with a shared history needs to be built. You can enroll in a language course, but without hours of practice, it won’t amount to much. Success is not for fans of instant gratification.
We all know that in finance, small investments over time eventually create substantial capital. The same applies to small steps we take in any other area over the years. A teaspoon of sugar has about 20 calories and hardly makes a difference in our daily caloric balance. However, if we allow ourselves to have it every day, after 10 years, we’ll gain 10 kilograms. You might want to embark on big ventures, but often, life success is determined by unimpressive, small actions. This is how we accumulate a capital of health, knowledge, skills, and social support, which can pay off at a certain point. Subsequent achievements build on previous ones, and with a larger capital, we receive better opportunities in life. People who are more successful later in life, often referred to as late bloomers, either gain momentum over time or find themselves in the right place and time at a certain moment, but they usually work for it.
What you do today matters
Perhaps your greatest, noticeable success lies ahead of you, but it will happen because of what you do today. Or it won’t happen because you’re not doing anything today. If someday you want to apply for a new position, you’ll have a better chance with a stronger resume, so maybe it’s worth putting a bit more heart into the work you don’t enjoy today. If you cherish a good relationship, it will be easier to build one with a closed past, so perhaps you’ll make an appointment with a therapist today, even if you don’t really feel like delving into the past. These actions may seem distant from your picture of a bright future, but they are the ones that create it, and you can only start where you are. It’s also good to be flexible in your desires. Even with honest efforts, you may not save a specific relationship or maintain employment at a chosen company, but what you learn, you will carry into the next one.
Think about your own life
- Is there something you don’t do because you think it’s no longer for you? Do you feel like your time for being in good shape, appearing attractive, finding love, moving houses, having an adventure, starting a business, taking the trip of a lifetime, studying, learning new skills, or changing old habits has passed? Have you ever held back from developing your own potential, denied yourself a new experience, rejected an opportunity that came your way, refrained from joining the fun, or let your dreams gather dust because it’s not appropriate, it feels embarrassing, or you’ll just make a fool of yourself?
- If so, maybe you’d like to change that. List all the things you deny yourself, but choose one to work on further.
- Honestly consider which of the limitations you impose on yourself are true. If the constraints truly exist, think about whether you can modify your goal to make it more achievable while still allowing yourself to experience emotions similar to those associated to the initial goal. In case of barriers that exist only in your head, you can work on them independently or with a therapist.
- Think about where you want to go and what even the smallest step you can take today is. Not when you work through your to-do list. Not when you finally have a bit of space. And not next Monday.
- Then listen to the song quoted at the beginning, which I recommend performed by Daria Zawiałow, and act as if a lot depended on whether you take that small step. Regardless of your age – you have time, but you also need to hurry.